If the revitalization of the Star Trek franchise is any indication, then I couldn’t reprimand you for raising your expectations for the next episode of Star Wars. J.J. Abrams saw an action series that doubled as a buddy comedy whose corniness had long outlasted and outshone any excitement or, you know, action, and made that series less outdated. (Don’t get carried away though. Those last three Star Wars were fucking awful. Also, maybe it’s just me but I don’t see that much difference between Star Wars and Star Trek; certainly not enough to bother preferring one over the other. I’m sorry, fanboys.) But I digress. Say what you will about sequels, Star Trek made for a welcome addition to the summer movie canon in 2009 with its eponymous rebranding vehicle, and the second volume of this new version is an enjoyable time in its own right. Star Trek Into Darkness pays more than lip service to its Shatner-esque origins; perhaps a little too much, but the movie manages to strike a balance between silliness and genuine action sequences, the success of these latter scenes driven by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose John Harrison is an alias for a more formidable and familiar villain to those with a working knowledge of Star Trek lore. At times Star Trek Into Darkness threatens to split into two distinct halves, a light and frivolous Star Trek for which sexual tension is the order of the day, and Into Darkness…you can figure it out. But by the end Abrams establishes some coherence that allows earlier scenes that felt disjointed to turn into parts of a whole. It’s an entertaining two-plus hours.
If you saw the 2009 reboot, or are in any way familiar with the background of Star Trek, the thrust of the story is no different this time around. Kirk is no less a lothario, Spock no less a robotic humanoid with an extreme gift for reason unable to prevent his emotions from defeating the logical decision whether Shatner and Nimoy portray those characters or Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto do. For two actors I cynically suspect were cast because of the resemblances they bear to their more iconic forbears, Pine and Quinto have a skill for the witty repartee required of Kirk and Spock, the odd rhythm of their sexual tension, whether displayed towards each other or Uhura (Zoe Saldana), reflected in their banter that pits Spock’s logic against Kirk’s brash selfishness. At times, Star Trek Into Darkness relies too much on the Kirk-Spock bromance, without ever bothering to change the formula—it’s more or less the same unsubtle joke, the one that points out the polar differences between captain and commander so the fifty-year-old die-hards can enjoy a nice chuckle, over and over. Without that joke, it’s not Star Trek, but too much of that joke is a bit adolescent. Though the same play-the-bromance-for-laughs angle grows tiresome, Abrams does rescue that central bond somewhat from inanity and a false start, as when Spock’s obligatory reciprocation comes it’s played with both humor and sentiment.
By false start I’m referring to the film’s opening sequence, which is easily its most colorful and thrilling. It takes place on a distant, pre-civilized planet, Nibiru, lush with bright red forests and a heathen race ignorant of futuristic technology; the Enterprise crew is there to halt the eruption of an active volcano, but in doing so Kirk chooses to save Spock’s life (he was trapped inside, surrounded by the scolding lava) and alert the primitive Nibiru residents of the presence of a galactic space cruiser submerged beneath their seas, in violation of the Prime Directive (sure to make all Trekkies grin in recognition). This scene, despite standing out aesthetically (I think Abrams set the rest of the film, until a final chase sequence reminiscent of Minority Report and Blade Runner, in the middle of a Halo video game), was followed quickly by another bombing, this one in London with Cumberbatch’s character as the culprit, after which the movie and the Enterprise both veered off course. While Abrams ultimately prevailed in tying the chase scene I just referenced with the opening, I wonder if the film might have been better served with a singular action sequence that established both Cumberbatch’s character and the Kirk-Spock relationship simultaneously. It certainly wouldn’t have been improbable, but had Abrams opted for such a virtuoso opening he would have risked losing a splash of color that virtually all successive set pieces lacked.
I must write a little about Benedict Cumberbatch, a British actor who’s way older than Kyra or I would have guessed (he’s 36!!) and who’s been appearing stateside recently in dramas we’ve imported (the BBC’s Sherlock modernization and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). He shines in Star Trek Into Darkness as a coiled spring of a villain with a mind a step ahead of everybody else. His introduction recalled Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, kept as he is in a glass-enclosed chamber, standing motionless, anticipating his interrogation. Hopkins famously used HAL-9000 from 2001 as his reference point for Hannibal Lecter, and it’s interesting to surmise that Cumberbatch could be in space, channeling Hopkins, who channeled a space robot himself. Cumberbatch creates in “Harrison” (I’ll keep his true identity from you) a conniving but calculating man; he exudes a calmness totally at odds with the way he plays Sherlock Holmes, all jittery and manic. Cumberbatch is adept at playing men consumed with the hunt but he demonstrates extraordinary range in doing so, with one man all over the map and one man who moves for no one. The only issue with Star Trek Into Darkness is that Cumberbatch is much, much more serious than everybody else in the film; this works in both directions, as it can elevate the material and add tension to the action sequences, but divide the movie into serious and not-serious halves that Abrams struggled to rectify. He does bring them together by the end though, leaving a result that isn’t fluff, that isn’t just a retread of old Star Trek tropes that kids today probably wouldn’t get (though I do think Abrams evinces a clear love for the series; for God’s sake TRIBBLES make an appearance, and he capably makes room for the joke but doesn’t allow the reference to be anything more than a means for the initiated to pat themselves on the back and remember some of the Star Trek low points), and isn’t some dark nihilistic hellscape. It’s a bit of all of those, but really it’s just a good way to spend an afternoon.